Crime & Courts

Innocents are remembered as finger-pointing begins: Could the Jones children have been saved?

The faces in the photographs, innocent and open, take the breath away.

Eight-year-old Merah Gracie with her wide, gap-toothed smile; 7-year-old Elias, blond and handsome; 6-year-old Nahtahn, blue eyes sparkling in mischief. And the toddlers: Gabriel, 2, turning to the camera as if arrested in motion; and Elaine Marie, 1, with her tiny scrunched-up nose.

Happy children, it would seem, in happy times.

Now, the community’s collective breath is taken away by the deadly violence the children allegedly suffered at the hands of their father, Timothy R. Jones Jr.

Hearts clutch. Gut-wrenching questions are posed. Finger-pointing begins: Was some awful clue missed? Could something have been done to save them? And how can the community absorb such a horrific loss?

Jones, a 32-year-old computer engineer with Intel Corp. who had custody after divorcing the children’s mother in 2013, is accused of killing the five siblings, likely by strangulation, law enforcement officials have said, on Aug. 28 in his mobile home in the Red Bank area of Lexington County.

Police say he stuffed their bodies in the rear of his Cadillac Escalade and embarked on a meandering, blood-soaked Southern odyssey before dumping their small corpses in rural Alabama.

Only when he was stopped Sept. 6, a Saturday, by Smith County, Miss., police at a routine traffic checkpoint, his car smelling of bleach and blood and his strange demeanor triggering alarms, did the horrific saga begin to unravel. And the people who knew and loved those children, including family, teachers and friends in South Carolina, Mississippi and Chicago, began to absorb the awful truth.

“By Sunday morning, I pretty much knew it wasn’t good,” said Saxe Gotha Elementary School principal Beth Houck. Investigators who met with her over that weekend could not reveal much, only telling her that Jones had been picked up by police – with children’s clothing in the car but no children.

“In the only way they could, with a few hints, they helped us start preparing,” she said.

Houck and her staff had been deeply worried about the three school-age children, who she said were well-loved by their friends and teachers. Jones had picked them up after school Aug. 28, but the youngsters, who usually bounced into school with ear-to-ear grins, had not returned after the Labor Day holiday.

Jones, the only parent that administrators knew, did not return the school’s phone calls Tuesday. Worried grandparents in Mississippi were in touch. The next day, Sept. 3, Houck, assistant principal Janet Ricard and two Lexington County deputies paid a visit to Tim Jones’ home and found no one home.

That same day, their mother reported them missing when her ex-husband failed to bring them to her for a visit.

Trying to explain the unexplainable

Houck went to school that Monday, Sept. 8, with a heavy heart, “keeping my game face on,” eschewing her normal routine of popping in and out of classrooms and stopping by lunchroom tables of chattering kids for fear she could not keep silent.

“It was the first time in my entire career as a principal that I did not leave my office except to do car duty and go to my staff meeting,” she recalled Saturday. Houck worked with Lexington 1 officials to put a “worst-case scenario” plan into place.

The next day, a Tuesday, Jones led authorities to a rural Alabama roadside where he had left the children’s bodies, and police announced his arrest.

Saxe Gotha has not been spared tragedy, said Houck, who has been principal since 2008 and assistant principal for three years prior. A brother and sister who who attended the school were killed by a drunken driver in 2011, and a 4-year-old lost his life in 2012, also killed in a collision with a drunken driver.

But this, she said, “was a totally different situation.” The staff drew on each other and on district officials for support, readying themselves for the onslaught of publicity and the questions from their students.

“It is very hard to explain to them something like this,” Houck said. “We always tell children that you rely on your family and teachers, and this contradicted that.”

They have been comforted by the small, precious memories they share: Merah, the third-grader showing off her first lost tooth, taking leadership in her reading circle, helping a teacher braid the hair of a special education student at recess. Nahtahn, a first-grader, performing the role of class greeter and already showing talent in art. And Houck said she always remembers second-grader Elias, nattily dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt but with shoelaces dragging, setting a goal in kindergarten to learn to tie those wayward laces.

Elias’ reputation for mischief was legendary, she said. Once, during “sharing time” in first grade, Elias surprised everyone by pulling a live turtle out of his pocket. He had found it, he said, the day before and slept with it overnight.

“They were great, happy kids as far as when they were at school,” Houck said. “It was always manners galore. It was always please and thank you. They loved everyone.”

And this: “I would have taken them home in a minute.”

Soul-searching and red flags

That question, whether the Department of Social Services, the family court that granted Jones custody, and other agencies should have observed the red flags and rescued the children from their home and their impending fate lingers.

The Senate’s DSS oversight subcommittee plans to address the Jones case at a meeting on Tuesday. State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said the subcommittee already was scheduled to meet to review the agency’s remedial actions since the departure of director Lillian Koller, who resigned amid a barrage of criticism over the agency’s handling of child deaths.

“Just from everything we are hearing, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Lourie said of the Jones case.

The Department of Social Services, which opened three separate case files on the family, will undoubtedly do some soul-searching as Jones faces a criminal trial on five counts of murder.

As family members, school officials and the public struggle to piece together the shattering of a family, the Jones’ thick divorce file and DSS reports shed some light on the series of life events before Timothy Jones’ arrest.

The unraveling seemed to have begun almost the moment the family moved to South Carolina in the summer of 2011, occupying a run-down trailer on a dirt road in the rural Fairview Crossroads section of the county, outside Batseburg-Leesville, in the summer of 2011.

Timothy Jones suspected infidelity on the part of his wife, Amber M. Jones, a Pennsylvania native he had married in 2004. In a deposition filed July 11, 2012, Timothy Jones said his wife had been engaged in an adulterous relationship with their 19-year-old next-door neighbor. For her part, she expressed loneliness and isolation; a social worker gave her information on a women’s shelter.

Amber Jones has not made a public statement throughout the ordeal.

During a two-week separation in May 2012, he said in his affidavit that his wife would put the children to bed and then walk next door to be with her lover. The couple had four children at the time. Amber Jones was pregnant with a fifth child that would be born in December 2012.

“When I returned home, she continued to leave at night to spend the night with her paramour,” Timothy Jones stated in his deposition filed with Lexington County Family Court. “I could not permit my children to reside in such an environment, and I took them to Mississippi to be temporarily cared for by my parents.”

Neighbor Susan Moore said she observed Tim Jones to be a good father and the children, well cared for.

“Oh, boy, this is hard,” Moore said as she groped for words to describe the children. “I go to bed at night and close my eyes and see one of them smiling.”

“Elaine, she was a baby and she smiled a lot, she was a happy baby,” Moore said. “Then there is Merah. She was very smart, know what I mean? Always willing to learn something. She is a girly girl, but she is a tomboy by the same token. She has beautiful long brown hair. And Gabriel – Gabe, I called him – always a smile on his face.”

“You couldn’t help but love them,” she said. “They were smart; they were adorable; they were respectful.”

Moore, like others coping with the children’s deaths, sometimes could not bear to speak of the five in the past tense. Nor could she reconcile the Tim Jones portrayed in media accounts to the neighbor who took his children to church on Sundays.

“Something happened to cause him to snap,” she said.

In May 2012, Timothy Jones visited a family therapist, April Hames, who noted in her deposition that “Mr. Jones stated that he loved his wife very much and wanted to trust her but felt that something was just not right.”

He told the therapist that the state Department of Social Services had visited the home in December 2011 – the first of three times, the agency said later, for alleged neglect or abuse of the children. “He stated that she was drinking while currently pregnant and suffered from bulimia.” What he did not say was that he, too, was ordered to clean up power tools used in remodeling and other mess and clutter that threatened the physical safety of his children.

“When asked his biggest fear, Mr. Jones stated that he did not want to feel abandoned by his wife,” the therapist's affidavit read. “He did not want to feel unwanted and ‘tossed away without even knowing it.’” The therapist found him to be a responsible father.

By late June 2012, Jones said he had confirmed the affair, having walked in on the morning of June 11 after a trip to Mississippi to find the neighbor in his house, hiding in the closet in the master bedroom, he said in his affidavit.

He had returned to South Carolina to take the youngest child back to his father’s house. Amber Jones retaliated, according to his affidavit, traveling to Mississippi on June 26, 2012, in an attempt to bring the children back to South Carolina.

“I am looking into moving to Mississippi with the children, where I have a large family support system,” he stated in the affidavit. “I will search for a job in Mississippi. I am employed and I am capable of caring for my children; the children have a better environment to grow up around their family in Mississippi, which my spouse agreed to in the signed agreement.”

Jones, whose job was in Columbia’s St. Andrews area, eventually moved with the children to Red Bank.

In the last August days he was seen in Lexington County, Timothy Jones had told neighbors he was moving his family to Mississippi.

Was that the plan before something went wrong?

One of Jones’ lawyers said Friday that his family was worried about his mental health and that he needed an immediate evaluation. In the divorce records, he said his mother was mentally ill.

The DSS reports made no mention of mental illness. They also didn’t mention the prison time Jones served when he was 20.

In Amory, Miss., where the children’s paternal grandfather and other relatives reside, mourners attended a memorial service Friday.

They released balloons to commemorate the children’s spirits.

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